2014-15 Teaching (part 2) – Reading with Alison Bechdel

At Evergreen, reflecting on learning is a foundation of our pedagogy. Students and faculty alike submit a complete portfolio of our work at the end of each year/program, including a self-evaluation. I post excerpts from mine here as a way of sharing my thoughts about teaching more broadly.

Reading with Alison Bechdel: Queer and Feminist Frames was the brainchild of my office neighbor, social psychologist Laura Citrin, who approached me with the idea for a program structured around the works of cult lesbian cartoonist cum acclaimed memoirist Alison Bechdel. Laura’s vision was to literally read along with Bechdel, who scaffolds her two graphic narratives about her parents with a webwork of literary, theoretical, and historical references. Although this construction gave us clear contours for an outline, reviewing the plentiful and disparate material and shaping it into a 10-week progression was far from simple. Because we decided to assemble a photocopied coursepack in order to consolidate and make concrete the many documents students would need to navigate, we had to make firm decisions ahead of time about over 60 accompanying texts. This involved not only selecting excerpts from Bechdel’s intertextual archive but also supplementing them with foundational readings that could offer a through line of feminist, queer, and media studies critique. Even after careful consideration, the syllabus was to some degree an act of faith: with such extensive and wide-ranging constituents we couldn’t guarantee in advance that the experience would cohere. And trusting Bechdel’s own intellectual logic put us in the student-like position of diving into material at the outer limits of our academic expertise. This was, in part, what made the program ultimately so enchanting – our learning was a genuine surprise. When we handed out the three volume, nearly 1000 page reader to students in the first week, its formidable materiality became an emblem for the work ahead, and I believe they understood that we were embarking on it collaboratively.

Our students were the most rewarding and the most difficult aspect of Reading with Alison Bechdel. The program title put a palpable stamp on enrollment, and it was glorious to start the quarter with a classroom full of queers and feminists. The cohesion of our learning really had to be emergent, and the group rose to the challenge, embracing the premise and the task of synthesizing very diverse texts (despite being largely unfamiliar with Bechdel at the outset). This involved exploring the resonances between genres (comics, films, literature, theory) and the continuities of history – from Bechdel’s coming-of-age reference points in 1970s lesbian feminism to our own third wave cultural moment. I believe that our program design facilitated this inquiry by emphasizing close and serious reading through twice weekly seminars and short-answer seminar quizzes. The students were hardly fans of the quizzes, and we could have made them more varied and interactive, but they were successful in creating a sense of accountability around the assigned texts and in seeding the critical conversation. We sought feedback midway through the quarter, and in response changed the way we conducted seminar to diverge from our quiz questions and accommodate more student-driven questions, but I believe that working with the quizzes helped the class to build substantive discussion skills.

In the course of the program, we also exposed students to our own expertise and perspectives, to a number of wonderful guest speakers on relevant themes (including a Skype date with Alison Bechdel herself!), and to activities like a library scavenger hunt. To workshop writing, we followed several shorter essays with an assignment they developed over several weeks, providing feedback on their initial paper topic and rough draft. One of the most interesting episodes of the quarter was when the group mutinied against our expectation that they would read their essays for their classmates at a concluding “conference” – an exercise that raises the stakes of their writing without requiring much additional preparation. A concerned faction organized behind the scenes to raise objections about this format in seminar, and we were able to reach a compromise (yes, everyone would speak in front of the whole class, but they could choose how they wanted to present their work). Some awkwardness in the moment notwithstanding, I was so proud of the students for advocating for themselves (this confrontation was a risk for them), for considering their learning styles and effective ways to communicate their ideas, and for engaging in an honest and mature negotiation. As in this case, I believe that my greatest strength as a teacher in Reading with Alison Bechdel was an aptitude for listening to and affirming, respecting and connecting with our students. Within this space, I could exemplify and share intellectual vitality and critical pleasure.

I gave sustained thought this year to the experience of queer and transgender students at Evergreen (a demographic that seems to be prone to a suite of intersecting difficulties that include health issues, mental health issues, disabilities, abuse, and economic challenges). I am committed to supporting these students’ success in ways that span their academic work but may also involve championing student groups, extracurricular projects, and campus causes. However, I realize that I need to be mindful of the boundaries of what I’m prepared to contribute in terms of time, energy, and interpersonal skills and to learn more about other available resources. I believe that the most important contribution I made to Evergreen’s queer community in the past year was pushing for an adjunct hire in Queer Studies and participating in the search process. Another campus issue that has occupied my attention is the campaign to address working conditions and equity for our adjunct and part-time faculty. I was part of organizing efforts to raise awareness and solidarity around the adjunct experience, such as sign-making and photographing for a modest gathering on National Adjunct Walkout Day.

Overall, I believe that I have been open and energized to both teach and learn at Evergreen, contributing to important conversations on campus and absorbing and manifesting a growing grasp of radical pedagogy. One crucial comment that I heard a campus diversity workshop is that, as faculty, we are in a position of power even in Evergreen’s non-traditional classrooms – whether or not we are comfortable acknowledging it. I have developed in my understanding of how to occupy that position productively, cultivating and modeling meaningfully supportive and collaborative relationships with students while balancing that horizontality with my responsibility to make ultimate decisions about curriculum and evaluation. I would like to thank my teaching partners, my students, and my faculty and staff colleagues for being the most profound and generous teachers I could hope for.